Vernor Vinge, online prophet

The author whose science-fiction classics predicted the Internet finds that reality is hard to keep up with.

Published April 5, 1999 7:38PM (EDT)

For historians of cyberculture, science fiction author Vernor Vinge enjoys unimpeachable street cred. Three years before William Gibson dazzled the SF world with "Neuromancer," Vinge captured the essence of the online reality to come in his eerily prescient 1981 novella, "True Names." Vinge's breakthrough 1992 novel, "A Fire Upon the Deep," continued his tradition of incorporating Internet flavors -- the intergalactic civilizations that flourish in its far, far future communicate with each other via a system that's remarkably similar to the Net's Usenet newsgroups.

Longtime fans might be in for a bit of a surprise, however, when they read Vinge's new offering, "A Deepness in the Sky." There is no Internet analog in this entertaining, intricately plotted space opera, nor is there any sign of another Vinge standby -- the ever-popular artificially intelligent superbeing. Instead, "A Deepness in the Sky" (set in the same future as "A Fire Upon the Deep," only about 30,000 years earlier) takes place in a time when computers have yet to break through to sentience. It's a dramatic change of pace for Vinge -- forced on him, he confesses, by the accelerating pace of events in his own, real-time life.

Science fiction writers used to have it easy, says Vinge.

"When I was first writing science fiction in the early '60s, it was easy to have ideas that it turned out didn't happen for 20 or 30 years," says Vinge. "But now it is very hard to keep up -- in part because the people who are making things happen have absorbed science fiction's mind-set of scenario building and technological brainstorming. They are driving ahead of their headlights too, now, and things are going very, very fast."

Vinge should know. He enjoys recounting how a friend of his read "True Names" just after it came out and told him that the story -- in which human computer jockeys donning alternate online personae battled with a malign artificial intelligence for mastery of a world-spanning computer network -- was "too far out." But four years later, she read it again and told Vinge it was "really too conventional."

"True Names" today reads more like a piece of reportage than speculative science fiction. William Gibson may get all the glory for defining the word "cyberspace," but Vinge actually nailed the details. "True Names" includes online gathering places identical to the MUDs (multi-user domains) that became the online rage in the late '80s. Its protagonists guard their real names from the National Security Agency and other hackers with cryptographic safeguards, just like today's cryptopunks. And they live solely to log on -- the pathology of today's Internet addiction is all-too-familiar in "True Names." So maybe we don't yet have marauding artificial intelligences or the ability to upload our consciousness into the Net; given Vinge's track record, it should only be a matter of time.

What do you do for an encore? How do you keep on keeping up? In "A Fire Upon the Deep," Vinge jumped forward 40,000 years to tell a vastly entertaining tale of intergalactic skulduggery, but still fell victim to the perils of anachronism. What the heck was Usenet doing in the unimaginably distant future?

It wasn't an accident, says Vinge. "It was dictated by certain technical constraints. My excuse was that the situation was one in which the latency -- the delays per communication link -- and the bandwidth were probably about the same as the 1980s-era Internet. I could justify that because we were talking about faster-than-light communication -- no one knows if that can ever be done, much less at what bit rate."

Most writers, even science fiction writers, tend to reflect in their writing the status quo of the era in which they live. But the plot choices Vinge made in "A Deepness in the Sky" -- primarily, his decision to make the novel a "prequel" to "A Fire Upon the Deep" -- plunged him into a unique quandary. During the seven years Vinge spent writing "A Deepness in the Sky," the rate of technological change in his own world accelerated. But Vinge was reluctant to let real-world technological change contaminate his fiction: To do so, he worried, would run the risk of incorporating massive inconsistencies in his future-history timeline. For example, readers might find it strange to encounter an analog to the World Wide Web in "A Deepness in the Sky" when the best that "A Fire Upon the Deep" could manage was a lame incarnation of Usenet.

"I had a big problem," says Vinge. "I had to back off from certain things, like anything Internet-like. It was a very big challenge, but it was fun."

The Internet isn't the only thing prominently absent in "A Deepness in the Sky." Vinge is famous not just for jumping the gun on cyberspace -- he's also well-known for his views on the potential impact of what he calls "the technological singularity."

"The singularity" occurs in that moment when computers become intelligent enough to upgrade themselves. Self-programming computers will have, argues Vinge, a learning curve that points straight up. In a very short time they will become transcendently intelligent and remodel civilization as they please. We might need to make a few adjustments.

The possibility for a technological singularity depends, of course, on the assumption that computers can become intelligent. But "A Deepness in the Sky," says Vinge, "is a look at what the universe would be like if the technological optimists are not right."

"The story takes place in a universe where computers can't become more powerful than a certain level," says Vinge. "It's the sort of universe that I think most people believe in right now -- that we'll make computers smarter and smarter, but beyond a certain level there will always be things that computers can't do. Well, this is the universe where that is so. Very large software problems can't be solved."

Vinge, a math professor who teaches computer science at San Diego State, is convinced that the "problem of software complexity" is the main obstacle that programmers face in creating intelligent computers. But he certainly doesn't rule out that possibility, even if there's no sign of success in "A Deepness in the Sky." He is quick to note that the current pace of progress, particularly in the area of networking, is beginning to rev up.

We're only beginning to see the results of what "a high level of integration and of networking" can accomplish, says Vinge. "If a person were to come back in three or five years -- provided we don't have a disaster -- I would say that the change in our view of [the potential of] networking will be as great as it would be if we look from now to, say, 1985."

Who knows? the Net may already be linking humans and machines together into an embryonic super-intelligence. Vinge agrees that the rise of the open-source software development model -- which links thousands of programmers together via the Net in massively collaborative software creation projects -- offers hope that our collective intelligence may be increasing.

"The Net is removing the various frictions that have kept people from collaborating," says Vinge, with relish. "It has had an extraordinary effect."

Of course, we may not all be so happy with the Net's extraordinary effects, if the result is trans-human intelligence that reduces us to the role of hamsters in a new evolutionary order. But that's just the stuff of science fiction. Right?

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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